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21st Century Conflict; 21st Century Humanitarian Response: NetHope and Ukraine

In the era of the 4th Industrial Revolution, conflicts themselves are undergoing a digital transformation.

June 7, 2022

Read NetHope's full
Ukraine Crisis Assessment Report

By, Lance Pierce, CEO, NetHope

Months have passed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the human and economic toll continues to grow. More than six million Ukrainians have left the country since the start of hostilities, and more will surely follow. The NetHope community has been active since the beginning, with 35 NetHope Member organizations working in the country itself, and 43 more working in the surrounding countries to help serve the displaced.

As the BBC noted a few short days after the start of the war, this conflict would be the first to introduce a new front line: the internet. NetHope Member organizations have been dealing with the full range of cyber-related issues: from refugees having insufficient access to connectivity to access relief or manage any of their own digital assets, to nation-state sponsored cyber-attacks on their data and large-scale misinformation/disinformation campaigns designed to sow confusion and/or outrage, depending on the issue, theme, or target population. NetHope’s corporate partners—among them the largest global cloud and IT system platforms and some of the leading innovators in the tech space—have meanwhile been pulled into the conflict themselves, dealing with the downstream impacts of the conflict on their employees in the affected countries, and in some cases, putting their vast arsenal of digital capabilities in the service of defending the Ukrainian people, and the NGOs who are responding in their name.

NetHope works with, and alongside, our Member organizations who respond to acute emergencies. For years, NetHope worked with our Members, with UN system agencies like UNHCR, IOM and WFP, and in some instances with our corporate partners who also directly deploy in emergencies, to coordinate digital, data and crisis informatics responses in the aftermath of typhoons, hurricanes, earthquakes, and all manner of disasters. Our assessment team recently returned from Moldova, Poland and Romania and you can read their blog here.

Our assessment team recently returned from Moldova, Poland and Romania and you can read their blog here.

Our work in emergency response has been evolving for years in a variety of ways, but the Ukraine crisis has accelerated that process on a number of fronts. In particular, NetHope’s approach to response, honed in public health crises like covid and Ebola, or complex emergencies like dealing with the displaced populations of Syria and South Sudan, has had to evolve in light of a hot conflict between two developed countries.

Our in-house research and partnerships hub, the NetHope Center for the Digital Nonprofit, has looked at the full range of 2030 strategic plans and planning across the Member community, looking deeply at the 40+ countries where the majority of NetHope Members and partners overlap. What we know is that NGOs globally have been on a journey toward digital maturity over the past several years, and that the crisis in Ukraine is forcing many of these issues to the fore.

In the era of the 4th Industrial Revolution, conflicts themselves are undergoing a digital transformation. Harm is no longer solely restricted to the physical world, it also extends to the digital space and NetHope Members are at the forefront of this new kind of response to emergencies.

Connectivity, long a fundamental issue in an emergency or disaster, is still an issue, but a new class of challenges is charging onto the scene, and in the 21st century conflict raging in Ukraine, they are front and center for civil society responders. “Information certainty” is one way, in our research, that we have described this cluster of challenges faced by humanitarian NGOs today, and it goes beyond simple connectivity. If I’m a responding organization, how do I know that the information I am acting on is accurate? How do I know that the information I gather—especially on people—will remain safe? When I am trying to provide direct help to people, in a flood of disinformation, how can I help them find their way to outside support they may otherwise want? These issues do not lend themselves to prize winning photojournalism, but they are increasingly at the core of the humanitarian sector’s ability to respond. The war in Ukraine has enmeshed them in a way from which there is no turning back.

For over 20 years NetHope has been a first digital responder to complex emergencies with connectivity. Last November, NetHope’s strategic alignment research reported that 90% of NetHope Members strategically seek to improve their information by 2030. Today, in the Ukraine conflict, it is information that is also attacked. Specifically, the Web that refugees depend on as a digital lifeline, and the data that nonprofits and governments use to adapt their critical emergency responses. To be effective, information must be factually correct and safe. In the past few months, we have seen cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns as the new weapons of digital conflicts that our Members have to fend off.

Last November, NetHope’s strategic alignment research reported that 90% of NetHope Members strategically seek to improve their information by 2030.

NetHope will continue our work in emergency response and will increasingly be turning more of our work in that space toward preparedness and resilience, based on the fact that preparedness lessens the need for outside response and resilience speeds the recovery faster than emergency response as the sole strategy. We will likewise continue our work on connectivity where needed, because around half of the world still lacks the internet, and in a natural disaster, where networks have not been hardened, connectivity still may be the difference between materials arriving to the point of need—or not—and as a result, between life or death.

But the need for information certainty is now mainstream, and the new strategies for dealing with it will be forged in the landscape of war-torn Ukraine. NetHope’s longer range response to this crisis will be a mix of the traditional—connectivity at key sites, equipment distribution to and through NetHope Member NGOs to speed up direct service—and a mix of the new: helping Member organizations work on collective solutions in response to attacks on the work, the effectiveness, and the people both doing service and being served.

Key Findings of NetHope’s Assessment Mission

The needs of the six million people forced to leave Ukraine are tremendous. Humanitarian organizations quickly mobilized to meet these needs, shifting resources, and adapting plans to respond to the dynamic nature of this crisis. The following are the top needs observed by the team during the assessment mission:

Humanitarian Needs

Designated family safe spaces are important to promote safety, wellbeing, and the mental health of children and youth while simultaneously assisting caregivers (predominantly women) to get rest, connect with loved ones, and find necessary information for the next steps in their journey.

  • The humanitarian community must address COVID-19 health and safety precautions, such as social distancing, mask wearing, and/or sanitizing.
  • Finding temporary homes for displaced people is complex and enormous. To meet housing needs, it is important to match hosts and refugees quickly and safely.
  • Volunteer data collection and management are necessary mechanisms to mitigate human trafficking, gender-based violence, and other tertiary safety concerns.
  • One of the most significant humanitarian needs within this crisis is safe, effective, and accessible transportation to and from conflict areas as well as safe zones which facilitate the movement of people. Supplementary to this need is the provision of accurate and trustworthy information about travel routes, local community geographies and resources, as well as the safety of areas back in Ukraine.

Digital Needs

Sources of connectivity have been made accessible for both responding organizations and displaced persons on-the-move. However, existing internet infrastructure could be supplemented through commercial grade networking equipment, cross-organizational network management, and equitable programs for at-risk clients, such as women and children, to access information-based resources more safely.

  • For a population with a smartphone ownership rate of 66%, the lack of suitable electrical infrastructure in family-safe spaces and transportation hubs is a major impediment in the ability of displaced people to self- organize, stay informed, and make decisions.
  • Expanded access to ICT hardware and internet-enabled platforms are important for displaced persons to connect with loved ones, maintain communications, and absorb relevant information.
  • Collaborations and solutions that enhance connectivity and promote access to effective sources of emergency entertainment for youth and children will provide a critical break for caregivers and address psychosocial needs of children and youth.
  • Given widespread reports of human trafficking and gender-based violence incidents, there remains a concerted effort to use digital resources to protect displaced persons from being targets of gender violence.
  • Information-based needs include provision of affordable, accessible, and resilient digital language translation services, and establishment of safe information ecosystems that facilitate movement of people.
  • Concerns around data collection, storage, and use are present but largely invisible on the field and program level. Services provided to refugees were designed to be quick and accessible (e.g. food, water) rather than more rigorous programs, which require personal data collection. Capability to address concerns is high in global headquarters, but low within direct responders. As the crisis continues, NetHope anticipates that data protection will increase in importance as more long-term oriented programming is implemented.

NetHope’s Response to the Crisis

The needs of displaced people and humanitarian responders are quickly evolving as the conflict continues. NetHope has already observed a shift in the prioritization of needs from the most urgent (e.g., food, water, temporary shelter) towards restoration of livelihoods and resiliency (e.g., education, job placement). Technology can play a transformative role in this crisis. While connectivity alone may be insufficient, when combined with capacity building for humanitarian organizations and tailored solutions for the displaced population, it has the power to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of critical service delivery. NetHope seeks to raise $1Million USD to respond to the needs of humanitarian organizations and people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine*. With secured funding, NetHope will prioritize the following areas of intervention:

  • Providing safe connectivity to NetHope Members and other humanitarian organizations that are delivering critical services to displaced people. NetHope Members are establishing field offices and programs in 40 locations throughout Romania, Moldova, Poland, and Ukraine and have requested secured, commercial grade network equipment.
  • Building NGO capacity in digital protection for humanitarian operations and Ukrainian children. NetHope will provide training to responders on risk management to mitigate the dangers that go hand in hand with the digital era – both in how they safeguard their ability to continue operating when under threat and how to proactively protect the vulnerable people they serve in digital spaces.
    • As observed in the assessment mission, there is a concerted effort to use digital resources to protect Ukrainian children and youth from exploitation and abuse. To do so effectively, the humanitarian community must be able to exchange data and trusted information with each other and local governments. Based on our expertise, NetHope can create an open data model that aligns with sector standards and initiatives and serves as a common language for the NGO sector, technology partners, law enforcement, local government, and other key stakeholders. This model can then be included in other public models, such as the Common Data Model.
  • Developing a pathway to effective solutions for transportation and housing, in collaboration with NetHope Members and technology partners using the IDEA Journey methodology. This may include the development of guidelines and standards for new applications that safely match those in need of housing to hosts for temporary stays.
  • Creating a replicable model for a safe journey kit that provides secure and reliable connectivity and access to accurate information. Each kit will include a handheld device, power bank, one-year remote technical support, and preloaded with a portal for support services translated into Ukrainian. Support services may include links to transportation booking platforms, entertainment and educational content for children, secured messaging applications, and information on legal rights in the EU, protection from human trafficking, and cybersecurity.

While the future of the conflict in Ukraine is unknown, massive efforts to rebuild critical infrastructure and basic services inside the country are expected when the conflict ends. Communications and digital resources will play a crucial role to ensure all efforts are coordinated. NetHope, in close collaboration with its Members, expects to play a central role in mobilizing and coordinating the support of the international technology sector in the rebuilding and recovery efforts.

*We seek your support to raise at least $1M for the digital pillar that will improve the well-being of the 6 million displaced people and the NGOs who serve them. The contribution will be part of our Rapid Response Fund. Your support will also enable NetHope to immediately serve the needs of the affected people and nonprofits inside Ukraine as soon as it is safe for us to do so. The recovery and rebuilding needs will be significant and digital solutions will play a crucial role.

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